This sensitively painted portrait of Hercule-François, Duke of Alençon and of Anjou (1555- 1584) is a fine example of the works produced by the celebrated French Renaissance portrait painter and miniaturist, François Clouet and his workshop. Trained under his father Jean, whom he succeeded as ‘painctre et varlet de chambre’ to Francis I in 1540, Clouet continued to work for the Valois monarchy after his patron’s death in 1547, remaining at the French court until the end of his life.
Portrayed at the age of six, the sitter was the youngest son of Henri II of France (1519-1559) and his wife Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589). Originally named Hercule, the prince was given his second name, François, in honour of his grandfather, François I (1494-1547) during the Grand Tour of Charles IX in 1564. As part of the negotiations between France and England to counter the power of Spain in 1572, he was proposed as a prospective husband for Elizabeth I of England, despite their disparate ages (the duke was seventeen, and Elizabeth thirty-nine). In 1576, he was rumoured to have been planning to ally with the Protestant German and Swiss against his Catholic brother Henri III (1551-1589). The ‘Paix de Monsieur’ (Edict of Beaulieu) was concluded that year following the duke’s alliance with Henri de Navarre (the future Henri IV, 1553-1610). In 1583, he joined with William of Orange to lead a dramatic failed attempt to lay siege to Antwerp.
Dated 1561, the portrait was painted in the year of the coronation of Charles IX (1550- 1574), the sitter’s elder brother. In the same year, Clouet also painted a likeness of the new king (a version of which was recently sold in these Rooms on 8th December 2016, lot 11) and a number of other family likenesses. Commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici, Clouet produced five paintings all of comparable scale and treatment depicting each of the dowager queen’s youngest children. Each bear the date 1561 and would likely have existed in a number of versions as demonstrated with Clouet’s Portrait of Charles IX. The group thus included official likenesses of the king; Henri d’Anjou, later Henri III (then named Alexandre-Édouard), for which Clouet’s original drawing survives in Berlin along with a painting from the workshop (Private collection); Hercule- François; and Marguerite de France (1553-1615) for which the original drawing is preserved at Chantilly, and of which a number different painted versions exist. Clouet’s studio also painted a large-scale group portrait of the queen and the four children, formerly in the collection of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill. Clouet and his workshop often painted series of versions following the established, official portrait type. Three such versions of the portrait of Hercule-François survive: the present work, that in the Royal Collection (inv. no. RCIN 403434) and a painting recently sold at Tajan, Paris (13 December 2005, lot 32). The Royal Collection picture, probably sent to England by Catherine de’ Medici, is generally accepted as the first in this group and entirely by the hand of Clouet. The head of the sitter in the present portrait was likewise certainly painted by Clouet himself and displays all the subtlety of modelling and smooth refinement which typify his hand. The body of the sitter, however, was more likely the work of a workshop assistant. This practice of collaboration was by no means unusual in a workshop which, like that of Clouet, would have been in high demand from the French court. The master would frequently paint the most important elements of a picture himself, in this case evidently the portrait head, and leave the rest to be completed by the studio.
Clouet usually made a detailed portrait drawing, ad vivum, of his sitters which could then be worked up into a finished painting and retained in the workshop if later versions were required. This not only saved the patron from lengthy sittings, but also ensured that the quality of a likeness could always be maintained. Such a drawing for the Portrait of Hercule-François, Duke of Alençon and Anjou is fortunately known and is kept at the Bibliotheque national de France. Though certainly a workshop copy after a lost original, the chalk sketch demonstrates perfectly the techniques with which Clouet operated his practice. The slightly freer style of the drawing and the close focus on the head and features of the sitter (leaving details of the costume only summarily defined) seems to have been typical of the painter’s ad vivum sketches which sought only to accurately document his sitter’s portrait to ensure that later, painted works would resemble them as faithfully as possible.
We are grateful to Dr. Alexandra Zvereva for confirming the attribution to Clouet and his studio after inspection of the original.